This is the second part of a two-part article written by a white male Catholic convert, 48 years old, who has no specialist theological training whatsoever, is of strictly average intelligence, and represents no interest group or political movement. It derives solely from a recent visit to London, in which nothing spectacularly horrible occurred, and which was spent mostly among people neither very rich nor very poor.
In Part 1 of this report (see Correspondence, May) I attempted to give some idea of the cultural, political, and moral squalor that has overtaken London since 1990. Here I endeavor to give an account of the two phenomena—two alone—that gave me hope for the city of which Dr. Johnson said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”
One was an exhibition at the National Gallery: “The Sacred Made Real,” a collection of 17th-century Spanish religious art. If someone had told me fifteen or even five years ago that Londoners would flock to see some of the most hyper-realistic Crucifixion statues ever made, I would have laughed at the notion. But this very thing happened in my presence. Tickets were so scarce as to require 24 hours’ advance notice for booking. The crowds bore no resemblance to those I had seen at the nearby National Portrait Gallery a day earlier. There, Americans and Chinese surrounded me. At the Spanish exhibition, the conversations were all in British accents or German.
Why are people in London viewing these terrifying artifacts at all? Is it, for them, the hip modern equivalent to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs? The sheer nightmarishness of the paintings and sculptures precluded, surely, mere aesthetic interest. Do the viewers feel toward God on Golgotha the same panic that ultimately overcame Pinkie Brown, in Brighton Rock?
Nevertheless, the news reportage is extraordinary. At a preliminary viewing, journalists who had spent their entire adult lives publicly defending Mossad agents, merchant bankers, and masturbators were seen to weep. Adrian Searle, an atheist Guardian writer, wrote on October 19, “Full of great and terrible things, this is a marvelous and often disturbing exhibition. . . . I left devastated and deeply moved.” The Observer’s Laura Cumming, also non-Christian, wrote six days later, “This is the most powerful show the National Gallery is ever likely to hold.” Public-relations girls—whose cultural awareness had hitherto been confined to memorizing every episode of Sex and the City—were briefly exposed to the astonishing fact that once upon a time in a faraway galaxy lived a Man called Jesus Christ, and there had been people who believed in His death on a Cross without ever having been silenced by Christopher Hitchens. (Hang on—didn’t some of these images resemble a Mel Gibson movie? Don’t remember the title, but it had something to do with passion. No Sarah Jessica Parker in it, though, so it can’t have been very important.)
The other small sign of hope for London can be found, with great difficulty, once you leave the Marble Arch Underground station and turn to the right. Inlaid on a traffic island separating Bayswater Road from Edgware Road, there is a round plaque that marks the spot where once the Tyburn gallows stood. No policeman will admit to knowing where Tyburn Convent actually is, but the Muslim tour guide will tell you.
On the door to Tyburn Convent is a placard: “Mobile phones must be switched off before entering the chapel.” Even here, it seems, modernity must be warned against. Upon entering, you are suddenly overwhelmed by a vast silence, broken only by the occasional whine of ambulances outside.
Behind a white grille, a Tyburn sister kneels, reverently but impassively, before the Blessed Sacrament. There are two ladies in the pews, each of whom is saying the Rosary. And there is myself.
What happened to me, in the 20 minutes that I knelt there, I cannot profess to say. Perhaps I briefly went insane. Perhaps I only then appreciated for the first time what being a faithful Catholic means. Whatever the explanation for those 20 minutes, it was somehow as if St. Edmund Campion and all the other 104 Catholic martyrs of Tyburn were, in a strange way, actually present.
I guess it was the spirit of the place. The realization that on this very soil, Catholics like me were not worrying about how to get to the nearest Tube station or when the traffic light was going to change or whether they had all the documents for their forthcoming cross-Channel trip. They were worrying about how not to betray the Church when the hangman first plunged his knife into their bowels.
From a biography of Campion published in 1867:
There was standing beside the block where Campion was being cut into quarters a young man named Henry Walpole: he was still a Protestant, and had gone merely to see. As the hangman was throwing the quarters into the caldron of boiling water a drop of the bloody mixture splashed out upon Walpole’s clothes, who afterwards declared to Father Ignatius Basselier, S.J., that he at once felt he must be a Catholic. On his conversion he joined the Society [of Jesus], was ordained priest, and sent into England, where he was apprehended, and like Campion condemned and executed . . .
Suppose I had been Henry Walpole on that frightful December day in 1581, and suppose Campion’s blood had splashed out upon my own clothes. Would I have had the courage to react as Walpole did?
My fear is that in the 16th century, sheer physical and moral cowardice could well have led me to do what I see so many otherwise intelligent and decent Englishmen and Englishwomen doing at present: in short, trying to reach a modus vivendi with Anglicanism. Those who behave thus in London today—when no threat of the scaffold, or even of lasting social ostracism, exists to keep them within the Established Church—would seem to believe that Anglicanism remains the same broadly Christian movement that once succored T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis. This, naturellement, raises the question: How incoherent, how femocratic, and how sexually perverse does England’s contemporary Anglicanism—presided over by Canterbury’s Rowan “Arch-Druid” Williams—have to become before these Londoners will have the courage to desert it?
During the 1950’s and early 1960’s, millions imagined that Britain’s leading dramatist was John Osborne. In 1994 Osborne drank and drugged himself to death after no fewer than five marriages, the fourth to an actress (Jill Bennett) whose suicide he greeted with open pleasure, lamenting only that the funeral directors had inconsiderately deprived him of the chance to defecate on the eyes of her corpse.
These days he is largely and happily forgotten, though there exists a languid scholarly debate as to whether he or Bertolt Brecht was the more blatant and talentless liar. To the extent that Osborne is remembered at all, it is less for his once-touted plays—whose cretinous proletkult amateurism even the British left now admits—than for his putrid erotic life and his 1961 cri de coeur, this latter published in the cryptocommunist weekly Tribune under the title “A Letter to My Fellow Countrymen.” Most of the document (written just after, and intended to justify, the building of the Berlin Wall) is of purely psychiatric significance, but the best-known passage from it possibly warrants quoting:
There is murder in my brain [Osborne insisted], and I carry a knife in my heart for every one of you. [Prime Minister Harold] Macmillan, and you, [Opposition Leader Hugh] Gaitskell, you particularly. I wish we could hang you all out, with your dirty washing, on your damned Oder-Neisse Line, and those seven out of 10 Americans, too. I would willingly watch you all die for the West, if only I could keep my own minuscule portion of it, you could all go ahead and die for Berlin, for Democracy, to keep out the red hordes or whatever you like.
You have instructed me in my hatred for 30 years. You have perfected it, and made it the blunt, obsolete instrument it is now. I only hope it will keep me going. I think it will. I think it may sustain me in the last few months.
Till then, damn you, England. You’re rotting now, and quite soon you’ll disappear. My hate will outrun you yet, if only for a few seconds. I wish it could be eternal.
The Tyburn nuns offer England a very different message from Osborne’s harangue. By their mere existence, they say, “Bless you, England. Bless you, and in the Name of the Crucified God, in the name of every Catholic exterminated by the Penal Laws, recover your soul.”